Prettifying Gospel with the Good Wife
So I don’t really watch television on a regular basis at all. And the only interactions I have with primetime programming are long after it’s originally aired and shown up for rental online.
Which is why I’ve just recently discovered The Good Wife. It’s perhaps not as all-that as this suggests, but it keeps one’s attention well enough, especially if one – like me – enjoys snappy West-Wing, 30 Rock, Sports-Night style writing.
Anyway, at our house we’ve recently started with Season 1 and are working our way forward, so last night I just saw an episode late in the first season that involves the good wife’s husband, a scandal-besotted Chicago pol (basically he’s the Elliot Spitzer of the Midwest), trying to rehabilitate his image by, in part, seeking to publicly atone for his transgressions under the spiritual auspices of one of the city’s most powerful black ministers. Cue inevitable black-church scene on Sunday morning.
Or at least, cue a scene set in what an urban black congregation looks like after it’s been flown out to LA, focused-grouped through made-for-tv content processors, and repackaged for sale in the culturally demilitarized zone of prime-time television (a rather unrevealing still shot of the scene is here; it’s not remarkable enough to make youtube, as far as I can tell).
It’s not impossible, of course, that the architecturally breathtaking church where the scene was shot is the real deal or close to it for an evangelical urban congregation somewhere in Chicago, and maybe it is not entirely implausible that a pastor as politically powerful as the one portrayed in this episode could get to be so on the basis of a sermon style that, judging from the brief glimpses we get of it, compares unfavorably to watching grass grow and paint dry. Whatever. It’s tv.
But I chuckled out loud at the show’s muffed attempt to do gospel music. Of course it was gospel, because there were black people in bright robes swaying and singing (I go on at some length about this culturally universal language of “gospel” here and here). And thank goodness for those unsubtle hints. Otherwise the scene would have resembled nothing so much as a House of Denmark commercial smashed into a United Colors of Benetton ad.
I think the song was “This Little Light of Mine,” or some such. Sooooo, so-far so good. And the singing was ok, so far as it went. But the piano … sweet merciful Martin Cook.
Ok, it wasn’t that bad. In fact, it was very ably played in general. But as an example of gospel piano, this was … something else. Rhythmically, it was living in another land entirely, with no feel of the enlivening left hand nor any of that ineffable sixth sense of how to play artfully around the down beat that’s necessary to make traditional gospel work well. Someone had clearly taught the keyboard player a few standard gospel-style runs and fills between phrases, which were dutifully dolloped into the arrangement. But the heart of the style was still hopelessly supper-club politesse that never wandered out of the middle two ranges more than a half-octave in either direction. It was like Aretha Franklin singing with one of those portable Casio keyboards parents buy children who claim to want piano lessons but will probably quit after three weeks.
I’ve always wanted to sit in on the script writing workshops that lead up to this kind of scene. Does no one care to get it more than vaguely right culturally, and so, the polished distortion of this kind of anemic, half-recognizable mise-en-scene-by-visual-shorthand arrives before us in direct proportion to the writer’s half-assed effort to understand what he claims to portray? [Scene opens in black church with swaying choir in bright robes singing gospel song jubilantly] … we nailed that, boys, didn’t we?
Or, perhaps more bemusing (and horrifying), this sort of scene is actually the result of the opposite: of a meticulous writerly effort to “get it right,” except the that the effort is just colossally, hopelessly abortive given the cultural distance between tv-script-writing workshops and urban evangelicalism … the rough equivalent of a court reporter trying earnestly to create a faithful record of a trial by listening through one end of a green-bean can attached to a string.
I actually get the impression that in the case of The Good Wife, the mark was intentionally missed in this scene. That is, the point was probably, I’m guessing, to stage the scene in a way that both clearly says “black gospel choir in church on Sunday” (in order to advance the plot), but that also faithfully upholds the show’s rigorously enforced neo-midcentury-modern aesthetic, even if that means distorting things (stills here and here and here give you the idea of the show’s aesthetic; there’s an entire blog devoted to the show’s style here).
The trademark Good Wife scene is full of airily comfortable rooms of bespoke taste, bright natural light, warm earth tones, and expensively understated fashion, props, and set designs. The point to all this is … well, for one, this is tv. It’s supposed to make us ache with consumeristic desire. But more deeply, I suspect, the show’s carefully regulated and well-heeled aesthetic tastes are meant to reinforce a larger thematic interest in contrasting the beautiful surfaces of upper-middle class urban living in which the plot advances, with the socially ugly, existentially thwarting confinement of the urban bourgeois corporate and political life that hems the good wife in on almost every side.
The chances of getting gospel right in this sort of somewhat overambitious - but entertaining enough - show were probably marginal at best. A little light, indeed. But boy, it sure is purtty.Email this Post